136. Making Conversation

Just ask James
Yourself: so Riah’d
Told him. She had
Said, he’ll answer!
Seated on the porch, Tom
Raised his paper:
James had come.
I can’t have him
Seeing me here idle,
Shiftless….
People who don’t
Work can get that way.
Thomas coughed and
Rattled the front
Page: “How’s Sunday school?”
“Fine.”
James sat down, legs
Crossed. Tom frowned.
Riah’d said–you
Want to chat with
James, then chat. Don’t
Ask me how he
Is. Ask him!

Tom thought, what to
Say? Riah would
Know. He rustled paper:
“Any news?”
“Like what?”
“Well…Sunday school….” 
James dug at
A splinter. Thought back:
“Vernie got in
Trouble.” Pause.
Then, “How’s that?” asked Tom.
“Fell asleep!
Clear through Bible
Lesson. Her eyes
Start to shut, like
This”–James blinked–
“Neck bent”–demonstrated–
“Thud, head’s on
The Jesus table.” Thomas
Nodded. James had stopped.
Tom forged on: “Then what?”

“Mrs. Jenkins
Even closed the Bible!
We was laughing–
Not me,” added, hasty–
“She woke Vernie.
She says, ‘Vernie
Walker, are you tired?'”
Pause. “And?”
“Vernie says, ‘Yes,
Ma’am.’ And Jenkins
Looks at her with
That big marble eye.
Tim says since his
Ma had got that
Eye, he can’t find
His best aggie.”
James seemed to
Await here some
Reply. Tom said, “Hmm.”
“So she asks Vern
If she ate her breakfast.
Vern says no.”
Folding down his
Paper, Tom looked hard.
“Mrs. Jenkins
Scolds her: ‘Vern!
From now on you
Take time in the morning,
Or you’ll miss church
Lesson. Vern, you eat!'”
James shrugged:
“Then Vern shrugs and
Tells her: ‘Not
Today.’
Jenkins says, ‘Why not?’
Vern looks at her
Like she thinks she’s
Dumb. She says:
‘It’s my sister’s
Turn.'”

James kept talking.
Thomas thinking:
If John Walker
Heard this, he would die.
And who knew what
James broadcast at church?–
Their own private
Business? Food was
Scarce–
Tom scowled–and to
Make these matters worse,
James brought home that
Deaf boy, dinnertime. Riah
Let him, too. “What
That boy gets, it’s
Not took from James’
Portion,” she’d
Defended–took from
Tom’s and hers.

He sighed. She was
Right–James’ friend,
Lean as a skinned
Hare. But he ate from
James’ too–James would
Jab him–“Herego,
Barker”–offer
Bread–James would
Watch him sidewise
Gobbling it, and
Riah not stop James.

Tom thought: Here I
Sit. I laze
The day away.
Same as coloreds
Men would tell
Pick faster. But…
Ground’s so dry–not
Worth a tinker’s
Damn–not worth
The effort. Gets me
Nowhere.

Tom recalled two
Colored men,
Who’d picked for him
Once in his best year.
He had paid them
Dimes. They’d picked so
Slow….
In Tom’s mind, things
Bumped: a stir. Felt
Bad. So–vexed, he
Waved it off. “James,
Don’t you tell our
Business at that
Church!”

“Yes, sir.” James,
Surprised–this had been
Nice. But
There it was
Again: his dad’s old
Voice.

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